The Contemporary Face of Art Chicago: An Interview with Christian Viveros-Faune
As Chicago’s newest stage for emerging and “cutting-edge” artists, the inaugural NEXT Fair drew huge crowds in 2008. The masterminds behind the contemporary face of Art Chicago include local gallery owner Kavi Gupta and New York art critic and curator Christian Viveros-Faune. The team combines forces again this year for the 2009 installment of NEXT, which will include the launching of the CONVERGE curatorial arts forum and a full roster of other public events.
NEXT may be the most innovative aspect of Art Chicago. A curated, invitational exhibition, NEXT is meant to feature exciting individual artist projects and encourage participatory viewing. It’s supposed to be smarter, more content-heavy and, in the words of its directors, “more fun.” But given the tumultuous political and economic events of the past year, will NEXT continue to deliver on its ambitious promise?
To find out, e-merge met with curatorial advisor Christian Viveros-Faune, who expounded on the challenges of curating in Chicago, current trends in contemporary art and his views on the future of art fairs. Also present was Kasey Madden, the director of public relations for Merchandise Mart Properties.
Ania Szremski: You have worn many hats in the art world, including that of an art dealer, curator, art critic and curatorial advisor for two major art fairs (NEXT and Volta NY). How would you define your role as curatorial advisor for NEXT?
Christian Viveros-Faune: We are trying to bring work and galleries to the fore, both in New York and Chicago, that are thought-provoking, or maybe even just provoking. My role is really that of a facilitator, making sure that good things get shown, and are contextualized in the right way. We’re both, Kavi Gupta and myself, trying to figure out how to structure an art fair to fill it with more content, to smarten it up, to show work we’re interested in, and bring new ideas and issues to the fore. It’s not about price points or the function of art in relation to the market.
AS: Yes, in relation to that, I was wondering about the overall thrust of NEXT as compared to Art Chicago as a whole. You’ve invited nonprofits and have a great program of pedagogic events. I was wondering if your aims are more pedagogical than commercial?
CVF: No, because the dealers have to make money or they won’t come back, but there are ways that the fair enterprise can be smart, oriented towards ideas, qualities and content. We’re trying to build a fair for collectors, not buyers. I mean, buyers are important, they’ve been driving the art market up for the past several years, but we really have to appeal to the collectors. They’re the ones who come to the fairs because it’s in their blood; they really make the art world go around.
AS: In your press release, you say that NEXT is meant to showcase “cutting-edge contemporary culture.” How do you define cutting-edge?
CVF: What we’re after is a demonstration of exciting work that has been underdeveloped in terms of exposure, whether because it hasn’t been on the radar for long, or maybe it has been around for a long time but just hasn’t hit the radar yet. It’s not an age-based concept. A 50-year-old artist can be just as cutting-edge as a 25-year-old artist.
AS: Can you describe your curatorial process? Do you just choose the galleries, and they have carte blanche to show what they want, or…
CVF: We invite galleries that show artists that we’re interested in and suggest that they show those artists. Then sometimes they say, well, we don’t have that work right now, or they’ll say how about this or propose something different, and that’s how the discussion begins. This is really what’s unique about our process.
AS: What’s different about doing this in Chicago versus New York?
CVF: Well, I’m going to be perfectly honest here: New York is a magnet for all kinds of energies in a way that Chicago isn’t. It’s easier to talk people into doing things. This is something that’s really obvious on a basic level. But in Chicago there are great opportunities for all industries, or at least cultural industries, to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
Chicago has the collectors, and it has a strong institutional base for contemporary art, probably the second strongest, after New York. But it’s only been in the past three years that Chicago has a history of a fair connecting with galleries. Of course you have the same problems here, which are sharpened this year by the fact that the entire world is falling apart.
AS: I was also wondering about your intended audience for NEXT. In your press release, you say that you’re trying to “redefine the relationship between art and its public.” Who is this public, and how are you trying to redefine that relationship?
CVF: Well, this is all about Chicago. First, I would refer you back to your earlier question — we’re really trying to appeal to collectors, not buyers, in terms of how we define our audience. We’re also trying to give buyers some pedagogical guidelines, some support to envision themselves as collectors. But in terms of the public vis-à-vis emerging art — Chicago doesn’t have a relationship with art like they have in New York, or even in Miami. And we’ve only been around for a year.
AS: Some people have said that an audience lacking a formal education or background in art can’t immediately appreciate challenging, contemporary art. Do you think that’s true, and if so, how do you mediate that?
CVF: Well, everything takes education, even a rock ‘n’ roll song. Everything takes a little bit of work, and anyone who comes to a museum or an art fair is there to put in that work, or they won’t have a meaningful engagement. By paying the price of the ticket, they’re showing that they’re willing to take on that work.
Kasey Madden: I think that you two are just too entrenched in the intellectual aspects of it. Last year, I saw people who were totally enraptured, not necessarily due to a background in art history or because they understood art historical references, but because the art was so shocking, so moving, so beautiful — it provokes an exceptionally emotional reaction, and you couldn’t get people off the floor.
CVF: Yeah, and you had cars crashing into each other every forty seconds … [laughs] … last year it was really like, I don’t want to say a fun fair, but a lot of people were there for that.
AS: So compared to last year, what will this year’s fair be like? Are you making big changes to keep it fresh or relevant? Will you be showing work that’s really shocking, exciting?
CVF: Well, I think it will still be shocking and exciting. Although, we’re getting a lot of politically based work this year because of these times. Actually I think the show will be more serious this year.
And we’ve got people batting around ideas at CONVERGE. Not to say it will be dry by any means; there will be a lot of lively work from around the globe.
AS: Yes, I wanted to ask you about CONVERGE. How did the idea for that come about? What was your role in developing that idea or making it happen?
CVF: Well it was a huge team effort, but really Kavi Gupta and myself came up with this idea that we needed to get more content and context into the show, especially this year.
AS: Why is it so important this year?
CVF: Because this is a year to be asking questions of everyone, in every discipline — it’s a year for stock-taking, a year for asking questions. And who better to ask than these top-notch international curators?
AS: Since the topic of the economy keeps coming up, I wanted to ask about how you think it’ll impact NEXT this year, especially in terms of sales projections?
CVF: Well it’s our responsibility to make sure that people who are going to buy are at that fair. We’ve tried hard to make sure that it’ll happen, we’re concerned about it too. I think that if we have the same sales as last year, then people will be doing really, really great. We hope that they don’t go down too much this year.
AS: Finally, I wanted to ask about the continued relevance of the art fair model in this economic context. Artists and arts administrators have been talking about a need to re-evaluate our models and systems for exhibiting and distributing art, about a need for a dramatic, systemic change. In light of these discussions, do you think that the art fair model is still relevant?
CVF: That’s a very interesting question, and I can give you half an answer, because the other half, no one knows yet. And that answer is that art fairs are necessary, because by hook or by crook, for good or evil, they have created great business for gallery districts all over the world — not just in Chicago, but in Miami, in New York, in London; collectors go to specific events to buy works there, to engage the art and the dealers, and it didn’t used to be like that.
I don’t think that there will be any reversal in that vehicle. If there is, it’ll be like going backwards 15 to 20 years, and I don’t think that’s going to happen. There are definitely structural changes that are coming down the pipe, but that’s not one of them.